Sunday, November 20, 2005

Movie notes:

Saw Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers yesterday and loved it, especially Bill Murray's performance. Murray has done great work before, of course, but this movie and this director suits him perfectly. Laconic, ironic, jaded, subtle, smart -- whatever ready adjectives you have for Jarmusch apply equally to Murray. If there's a criticism, it's that Murray slips a little too easily into the role: his every line is just so him. It doesn't seem to have pushed or challenged him or forced him into some new unexplored area. It's absolutely perfect casting; nothing more.

The story in case you haven't heard is about a well-to-do computer whiz and emotionally burned-out Lothario named Don Johnston -- not Don Juan, as he tires of being called, and not Don Johnson, the "Miami Vice" star. ("Johnston, with a T" becomes a running joke.) He receives a mysterious unsigned letter from a past lover, who informs him that she had a son by him some twenty years ago, and that the young man has now left home to look for him. At the urging of his happily married pal Winston (the wonderful Jeffrey Wright) -- who is constantly urging him to settle down -- Johnston goes on a cross-country search to find which of his past dames, if any, wrote the letter.

The search is only part of it, of course -- it's more of an investigation into Johnston's past, littered with great brief loves that ended happily or tragically. Of course, the women -- played successively by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton, all superb -- have moved on, more or less, but each are distinctly different affairs.

Stone was the hot-to-trot saucy one; now widowed after her race car driving husband's last wreck, she lives with a fetching teenage daughter named Lolita (Alexis Dziena) who likes to walk around the house naked. (Although it is Stone who winds up getting Johnston into bed.) Conroy is the reserved, frozen, perfectly remote one who married into security. Lange is even more distant; she makes her living communicating with people's pets rather than people. Swinton is the tragic hostile, redneck girl with issues, and the most likely candidate for motherhood, although Jarmusch leaves the matter open.

For all these women, Johnston is as much of a dim faded memory for them as they are for him. That line of Bob Dylan's comes to mind: "All the people I used to know, they're an illusion to me now" -- illusions which he has marked his life by, not unlike Victor Sjostrom in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries or Ross McElwee in his great documentary Sherman's March.

Johnston's own search isn't resolved, but then, neither is his life. As he says at one point to the young man who may or may not be his missing son, his philosophy boils down to "The past is gone, the future isn't here yet, and all we have is right now." The last shot we have of Johnston is him staring ahead, caught between what's over and what hasn't happened -- and what, maybe will happen.

* Jarmusch came to mind a few days ago, when I watched Rancho Deluxe, a love-it-or-hate-it 1975 stoner classic -- although my use of stoner here means this story of a pair of cattle-rustlers seems to have been written while stoned. Laidback, dry, and I thought hilarious comedy. Slim Pickens is a jewel: the greatest old coot in movies, short of Walter Brennan.

And Charlene Dallas, girl of my dreams, whatever happened to you? I love it when she breaks into a Broadway show tune at the dinner table, or when she hornily attacks Harry Dean Stanton, and her closing line is one of my favorites: "C'mon Henry, let's blow this pop stand. I wanna get to Great Falls and spend my cut."

Part of the reason I like the movie, or have a fondness for it in memory, is that it was one of those movies that hit you at certain times in youth that kind of opens a window into adult life at some level. I am thinking particularly of the love scene between Jeff Bridges and Patti D'Arbanville, which was comic and goofy but also very sweaty and raw and real-seeming.

* Yesterday I picked up this cheapee DVD on the urging of the store owner, a friend and a great fan of film noir obscurities: the 1948 thriller Open Secret, starring John Ireland and Jane Randolph. Very obviously done on the cheap and rather incompetently shot, directed and acted, but it's pretty painless at 68 quick-moving minutes. The plot involves a secret group of anti-Semitic louts and losers who are trying to scare off Jews, and it's apparently one of the first to tackle the subject, which it does with pardonable earnestness.

* Read James Agee's script for The Night of the Hunter this morning. The story goes that director Charles Laughton mostly rewrote Agee's treatment of the Davis Grubb novel, but I couldn't tell that he had done a helluva lot. Scene for scene, Agee's script is 95 percent the movie I remember, but I'd have to watch it again to be perfectly sure.

* Note to self: read David Weddle's bio of Sam Peckinpah. Watched The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs back to back. I wrote a little essay on Straw Dogs years ago and the thoughts I had then kept coming back to me, about how it is about the code people live by, and it both endorses and questions it. Brilliantly paced, too; the last half-hour is the kind of raw relentless nightmare people just don't know how to make anymore.

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